May 18, 2005

SPRINGFIELD (May 18)—The Illinois House of Representatives today unanimously approved a Senate bill that would, for the first time, provide state-supported intercity passenger trains with their own source of revenue.

S.B. 635 creates an Intercity Passenger Rail Fund that would function by receiving a $50 deposit from the State Treasury every time a state employee traveling on state business switches from car or air transportation to rail for a trip between Chicago and Springfield.

“It’s a unique and novel concept,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo: “The money actually comes out of savings that the state realizes whenever its employees forego expensive car and plane travel in favor of the train.”

Szabo said most state employees traveling between Chicago and Springfield now use their personal autos, for which they are reimbursed by the state at the current Internal Revenue Service rate of 37.5¢ per mile.

“That’s expensive,” Szabo said. “It comes to nearly $150 per trip. Air travel is even more expensive for the state. A round trip can cost anywhere from $250 to $529.”

But if the employee travels by Amtrak at the specially negotiated rate for state employees, the cost of a round trip ticket is only $32, leaving the state with a $120 saving. S.B. 635 mandates that the state deposit $50 of that saving into the Passenger Rail Fund whenever an employee takes the train.

Szabo said the legislation was developed by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the Environmental Law and Policy Center. The two not-for-profit advocacy organizations are partners with the UTU Illinois Legislative Board in an informal High Speed Rail Working Group that meets twice each month to strategize on ways to advance passenger rail development in Illinois and adjacent states.

“The Association did a great job in drafting and lobbying this legislation,” Szabo said. “It’s a unique concept. I don’t think any state has ever done it before. All of the states that fund passenger trains have to get their train budget each year in an appropriation from the legislature, often after great struggle. Illinois now is the leader in finding ways for passenger trains to have a discrete source of funding that isn’t dependent on an annual appropriation—the way highways are funded out of the motor fuel tax and airports out of the airline ticket tax.”

How much revenue will the Passenger Rail Fund actually accumulate?

“That’s the big ‘If,’” said Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Richard F. Harnish. “The state does not keep permanent records of how many of its employees travel, what mode they use or how much they spend on their trips. Once a department head approves an employee’s expense account at the end of a trip, a reimbursement check is issued and all the paperwork is discarded.”

Harnish said the state’s total budget for employee travel is about $35 million per year. State employees are believed to make several thousand round trips a year between Chicago and Springfield, and most trips are believed to be made by car.

Although state employees currently get a special Amtrak discount only on trips between Chicago and Springfield, the Senate is expected to vote soon on a resolution urging the Governor’s Travel Control Board to negotiate special rates as well for rail travel between Chicago and Bloomington-Normal, Carbondale, Champaign-Urbana and Macomb.

“We’re making some slow, but steady, progress in our goal of increasing intercity rail service in our state,” said Szabo. “We’ve formed a Passenger Rail Caucus in the Illinois Legislature and the interest in passenger rail continues to grow. To date, additional funding has always been the drawback. Creation of the Intercity Passenger Rail Fund is a significant step in solving that problem.”